May 13, 2014
This year marks the 30th anniversary of LM Communications, a radio group based out of Lexington, KY. In that time, owner/founder Lynn Martin has been able to build a 14-station company in three states, while dealing with the impact of the Telecom Bill in 1996 and a variety of economic cycles, including the Great recession of 2008. Here, Martin explains how he has been able to survive and prosper at the local level.
What made you decide to get into radio ownership?
I had a radio background back when I was a kid; my dad was a sports announcer. Although he was never an owner, I was always around radio and I thought it was interesting, but I never planned to go into it. I wanted to be an airline pilot. I went into college, where I played football. I was really trying to find a part-time summer job, when a supporter of the football team, who owned an ad agency, told me he knew a guy who owned a couple of radio stations. He liked football players, so he interviewed and eventually hired me. That was 43 years ago.
I started in 1970 as a part-time sales guy. I already had some idea of what radio stations did, and it became something I really like and enjoyed. After that I became a full-time sales guy, then sales manager, then GM for WIOT/Toledo, OH. I had worked for Reams Broadcasting for nine years with a goal of buying my own radio station before I turned 30. So I put a deal together with a partner in 1981 for a station in Charleston, WV, and we did alright for a couple years. In 1984, I went out on my own and bought a station in Lexington, KY.
Even though you were familiar with the business, did anything about owning your own station surprise or especially challenge you?
Were there surprises? There are always surprises when you start out and put every nickel you beg, borrow and steal into a radio station. You're the first person to work every day and the last person to leave ... the first person to take care of the problems and the last person to get paid. But it has always been labor of love
How did the Telecommunications Act impact your stations?
Initially, it impacted me negatively because I was still relatively small indie owner of an AM/FM in Lexington. Consolidation turned out to be a double-edged sword. Most of the big public companies merged their stations together in markets, making it harder for us to compete. I had opportunities to sell my stations to some of them, but I didn't want to. In fact, over time I've been able to purchase stations in other markets, but for the most part, it made me more competitive and from that standpoint, it actually worked out.
Over the years, you've also had to get through a series of recessions, such as the downturn after 9/11 and the "Great Recession of 2008." What were the keys to surviving them?
To be sure, 9/11 was a travesty for the country. As a matter of fact, I was actually in the air, flying from Lexington to Charleston, SC at that time. I was the pilot, flying a small plane when they grounded all flights and told everyone in the air to land at the closest airport. I was within 30 minutes of Charleston, SC, so they let me land there. That was when I found out what happened. For a period of time, that certainly impacted the business attitude in the country. But my thinking has always been that you look at every day as a new challenge ... one day at a time. Our job is to create something on our stations that the listeners like to hear -- and provide our advertisers with lots of ears and the opportunity to present their message to them. No matter what the business climate was or is, we always want to do a very good job of that, putting the customer first. You under-promise and over-perform.
However, 2008 was a much different scenario from an economic standpoint. The financial collapse certainly had a dramatic effect on businesses that were highly leveraged. When the lending dried up and there was a lack of funding, it put everyone in a very tough situation. But to operate a business, you have to stay in business. We cut back in certain areas, did more with less and just hung in there. Our listeners didn't go away, but a number of potential advertisers dropped a bit. Again, it goes back to my philosophy of life -- one day at a time. We got through it; we continue to move forward and we're excited about future prospects
Over the years, syndication and voicetracking has been more prevalent, party because of a need to cut expenses. How have those kinds of programming trends affected LM?
When we program stations, we first look at what we're doing in the market, then we evaluate the competition to see where we can do a better job to grow our market size and market share. We do some voicetracking, but we program most of our stations and we employ local people to do it -- and we try to hire more local people. Some of the larger companies have different ideas on what they need to run their company. That's fine. To me, it's an advantage to make local decisions and, if need be, immediately turn on a dime. That makes us nimble. The fact that our local personalities and our staff can go out and talk to our listeners every day and do what needs to be done gives us a distinct advantage.
Over time, as the population changes and ages, you look at the demos of your stations' audience - and if they're going into older categories but you want to stay with the target demo, you've got to do something newer and address what your targeted listeners want to hear -- and then provide it for them. Fundamentally, I don't think it's different than what our job always was. That's why radio is a wonderful medium; every car has a radio homes have radios; computers have radios. Boomboxes are now cellphones that have the ability to play radio. You can be heard in so many ways; that's why radio has a great future. I'm in it to stay and I want it to continue.
Your stations are all in diary markets. Do you feel Nielsen is paying enough attention to your desire for diary improvements?
Nielsen just purchased Arbitron, so I don't know the ramifications. It's too early to tell, but what we want is the ability to make sure that the amount of audience our stations provide to our advertisers is measured properly because radio has not been given its fair share of credit in reaching the market today. And I feel the reason we deserve to get much more credit is that when we do promotions, contests and even ad schedules for our advertisers, they say we get great results - but I don't see that in the media. It's just about the new digital technology coming on. Radio hasn't done the best job of PR on how really great we are as a whole. It's not that our perception is bad; I just think it can be a lot better.
Speaking of digital technology, how has the arrival of Pandora and the plethora of streaming services affected the way you do business?
Let's put it this way: Any time a new technology comes around, it attracts people's interest to see what it is. But what I'm talking about is what radio does best -- and should continue to do because it's all tried and true. Radio reaches well over 92% of the population every day. I know radio works in our type of market. Some media pundits try to devalue radio sometimes as old technology, but we believe totally in Radio and continue to do what we do best -- and that's provide our customers the opportunity to achieve their goals.
So what's the newest project you're undertaking?
My newest project is a venture into TV. For me, I call it "Radio with Pictures." I purchased my first television station in the Louisville, KY market last year -- WBKI-TV, a CW Affiliate. It's giving me a new perspective of another broadcast medium and I am enjoying the challenge.
There have been a lot of medium and small-market radio group acquisitions lately, with buyers being Townsquare, L&L and Dean Goodman's Digity. Where does LM Communications fit in with that scenario?
I'm always open to looking at new acquisitions. There are some things I'm looking at; whether they actually come to fruition, I don't know. I believe in the radio station business. I believe there's a lot of growth ahead for radio - and I want to continue to be in it. So if any deal makes sense to me, I'll certainly take part in it.
As for being approached, we have had a steady diet of inquiries from other groups wanting to know if I want to retire. (Laughs) I don't know about that. As I've gotten younger while I matured, I have seen a few of my friends retire, but I'm not sure if they're as happy as they thought they'd be.
In my case, what continues to drive me and keep me happy is the fact that I go to work every day and I'm fully involved in what we do. It's as much fin and as much of a challenge for me today than it was 30 years ago, back when I had to do everything - be the GM, the sales manager, do a bit of programming, and even do some janitorial. I had every nickel in the station, so my literal survival depended on paying the bank on the loans and the electric bill and the rent. I had to make it work and thankfully, it has worked.
Today it's more of a challenge of work, hire and keep the good people who help us build what we started. I'm very blessed to have really good managers in my markets who share my vision of where we're trying to go - and what to do to get there.